When it comes to running cross-country, Matthew Billings takes it both seriously — and literally.
This past summer, the Manhattan College graduate student ran from San Francisco to New York. But it wasn’t for the workout. Instead, it raised awareness and money for the Baltimore-based Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults, a foundation dedicated to helping those affected by cancer attend college through scholarships.
“When you start the trip, it seems like a lot,” Billings said. “But then you get to the end. It’s one of those things that, to cross the finish line, you realize the kind of difference you make.”
Some 50 days and 4,000 miles later, Billings completed a running stint akin to Forest Gump. Along with the other participants, Billings ran from state to state, including Idaho, Colorado, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Ohio. In addition to running, they also made visits to cancer hospitals along the way.
Running across the country is not only a great way to see America, but also a great way to raise money.
The Tennessee native moved to the Big Apple in 2015 to pursue his master’s degree in civil engineering. He taught at La Salle Academy on the Lower East Side, and became the cross-country and track coach. After running in college and high school, pulled hamstrings and cramps were nothing new to him. However, when one of his athletes, Eric, started complaining about severe leg pain, Billings later discovered Eric had osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer.
“Because of his treatment, he was forced to leave because of the chemotherapy and he couldn’t be at school anymore,” Billings said. “I would go and tutor him and try to help him out.”
Like running, raising awareness for cancer and helping those affected is important to Billings. Not only was Billings there for Eric as a teacher, but as a friend who supported him when he was sick. Throughout the run, Billings also took the time to encourage other cancer patients at hospitals along the route.
Soon after, Billings found out about the Ulman Cancer Fund, he encouraged Eric to apply for a scholarship.
When Billings embarked on his cross-country expedition last July, he did it in support of Eric and sick kids like him.
It was a journey that was not always easy. There was never a warm bed waiting for him after various stretches, nor carbohydrate-filled meals that could give him the energy to continue the run.
“We would set up at a church or high school in the city and spend the night there,” Billings said. “The entire trip was self-funded, and there was a lot of churches and high schools donating. Sometimes they’d have a gym, or we would find a local pool to see if they had a shower or garden hose or sink.”
The runners roughed it out for most of the trip. Along their journey, people gave them money, but none of the runners wanted to spend those collected funds on food. It would not be unusual for Billings to sit down to a dinner of popcorn and granolas, but sometimes he’d get lucky. One restaurant owner, for example, was so enamored by what they were doing, he told Billings and his fellow runners they could order anything off the menu.
“Everyone supported everyone, and some days were really easy and some days were really hard,” Billings said. “It didn’t matter what kind of day you were having because you could count on those around you.”
The run itself started in July, ending in early August. Once the run was over, things got a little emotional.
“You see the finish line, and it’s kind of a surreal thing,” Billings said.
While Billings used his legs to combat cancer, he uses his mind not only to study the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and math, but also promoting such subjects beyond the classroom.
“You don’t have to be some big-name political person to make an impact in the community,” Billings said. “It’s not something that’s going to be publicized or on public TV or anything, but you can make a difference in people’s lives, and you could help benefit other communities.”
On his coast-to-coast journey, Billings met many unique people from different places, bringing back a number of stories to tell. One woman at the gas station, for example, gave them $200 after sharing her grandson was fighting cancer.
“It didn’t matter who you met,” Billings said. “Everyone had been affected by cancer in some way, and it gave you a sense of belonging.”